Crosshair knows that, most of the time, he’s an asshole. It started back when he first realized that he was different, when the Kaminoans and doctors made sure he learned that being different was bad. It became easier, he had decided, to make everyone hate him on his own terms rather than have them come to that decision on their own.
And the worst part, Crosshair thinks, is that it worked. Everyone hated him. And for the most part, it worked in his favor. The worst he’d get were sharp words from clones who never really understood what those words really meant and why they carry weight and general disdain.
But sometimes, some clone who’s trying to prove his metal decides it needs to escalate. Crosshair is skinnier than practically all of the clones, he knows this and isn’t bothered by it. Except when three or four of the regs decide he needs a physical reminder of just how low everyone thinks he is.
It only takes a few beatings in some back corner of the clone training center on Kamino for Cross to learn how to fight. He doesn’t like it, but learning it is necessary to his survival.
He’s stopped bothering with counting days or months by the time he meets the clone who calls himself Tech. He named himself that because he works in maintenance, the clone tells him. When Crosshair meets Tech, Cross still doesn’t have a name.
It’s pretty ironic that Tech named him, Cross thinks because Cross wouldn’t have said that Tech had a particularly good sense of self. It took Cross far too long to realize that Tech’s complete immersion in his mechanics and devices was, essentially, his own version of Crosshair’s well-constructed acerbic personality.
When he was constantly listening to and recording footage, Tech didn’t have to hear the things people said about him. And, Cross realizes, Tech doesn’t shut up. He supposes the same principle applies there: can’t hear the shit people say about you when you don’t ever give them the damn opportunity to say it.
They’re on the range, Crosshair laying on his stomach fiddling with the sniper rifle and Tech sitting next to him, muttering about engines and kyber crystals when Cross notices something wrong. Tech stopped talking.
Cross turns to look at his vod’ika, because that’s what Tech is to him no damn doubt about it, and is surprised to find Tech looking at him, head tilted and face serious and like Tech had just found the answer to a puzzle he wasn’t entirely sure he’d solved.
“Your name is Crosshair,” Tech says, and when Cross doesn’t immediately reject it, Tech nods as if that settles it and goes back to his tablet, muttering about kyber again.
Something deep in the left side of Crosshair’s chest, something Cross swore he’d taken out long ago, squeezes and jumps. Cross can’t decide if that’s a good feeling.
Crosshair can’t decide what, exactly, about Rex puts him so on edge. Except that he can, he just doesn’t want to acknowledge it.
Ever since he and Tech were thrown in with Wrecker and Hunter to make some sort of experimental unit, Cross feels that thing in the left side of his chest move and squeeze more, like it’s determined to remind him it’s there, and that he has three brothers now that he has to protect. Cross doesn’t like to think about that, because when he does he can’t breathe.
The reason Crosshair hates Captain Rex is because Captain Rex is too much. And not in a bad way necessarily, but bad for his brothers. Hunter, specifically, because not only does Hunter have to hear and see Rex’s concern, but he has to feel it, too.
And Crosshair isn’t stupid. He has three vod’ika now, he knows how Rex feels. But unlike Rex, Cross can’t ever say it.
And that’s what this all comes back to, isn’t it, Cross muses. As a reg, Rex has at least some ground to stand on, something solid to lean against and wage a war for his brothers on. The Jedi will at least listen to him. But Cross and his brothers don’t have that support. If someone, be it Jedi or clone, says something about them, the Bad Batch has no standing ground. According to the Kaminoans, they’re abominations, proof that a perfect system isn’t perfect.
If anyone says anything Cross knows that Tech won’t fight back for himself, and Wrecker is often too dense to notice, and Hunter will never say anything about it because he’s the leader and has to be calm and collected and so Cross lashes out as a way of trying to protect them because he doesn’t know how else to. He doesn’t know how to tell them that he cares, he doesn’t know how to fix the mental and psychological wounds those words leave.
And Cross knows they leave wounds, knows how the wounds fester and ooze, how they track their way through the whole body until the infection of self-hate and fury has touched every part of them, down to individual cells.
Basically, Crosshair thinks he’s jealous. But at this point he knows, as he watches Rex pat Cody’s chest piece, he’s stuck. He’s spent so long learning how to not say things, how to bury all the words deep inside his chest like some mock graveyard, that he doesn’t know how to unearth them anymore. Anytime he felt anything, he shot it dead with just as much brutal efficiency as he’d take out the holo-droids on the gun range.
And now, he sees how Hunter steps away from them, from Rex and Cody, and Cross knows it’s because Hunter has to feel Rex’s worry and it’s too much for him. Cross knows it’s irrational, but in that moment he hates Rex for hurting his brother.
And then Jesse’s going after Wrecker and Kix is trying to jump in and Cross snaps. He knows that Hunter will talk to them about it later, that Hunter will pull him aside and ask him if he’s ok, and Cross hates that he’s causing his sergeant, his vod’ika, to worry but he doesn’t know what else to do. He doesn’t know how to resurrect the words he’s buried for so long.
Cross has seen so far that Rex and Cody have been respectful of him and his brothers, and they acknowledge that the Bad Batch is good at what they do and their tactics work and Cross knows that hating them is irrational because everything Cody and Rex have done has been in reaction to Cross or his brother’s provocation.
But he also can’t stop hating them because then he might like them and then what will he do if they hurt his brothers? All the work he’s put into himself, turning himself into a shield between his brothers and the rest of the world, all of that going to waste because he sees a mirror in Rex: A man who’s terrified about keeping his brothers safe, and alive, and who knows that someday he’ll fail.
And then what? When their whole goddamn existence is wrapped up in trying to keep alive men who were born for the grave, what’s supposed to happen after they fail? When they’re expected to get up and go out the next day to fail again, cursed to exist in some sort of repeating loop of death and no graves and no respect for their dead brothers and no time to mourn, what are he and Rex supposed to do about that? What do they do when their whole existence is wrapped up in a mission they were never going to succeed at?
It’s dangerous, Cross knows, to see himself in Rex. Dangerous to assume that Rex won’t let him down, that there’s the possibility that Rex might like him and his brothers. So, Cross decides, he’ll fall back on what he knows, what he’s always done. He’ll make Rex hate him before Rex has the chance to choose that option himself.
Because even though he and Rex are cursed, both men with vod’ikas they have no choice but to love, both stuck being crushed under the machine of war created by a Republic that doesn’t care about them, Rex can still hurt him, can still hurt Cross’s brothers, and Cross won’t let that happen.
Having a fourth vod’ika isn’t as terrible as Cross had expected it to be. He isn’t sure where the name “echo” came from because as far as he can tell, Echo’s silent. Sometimes his eyes will glaze over, and it looks like the kid is on the other side of the galaxy.
Cross wonders if Echo used to talk a lot, if he used to sound like Tech. Tech’s sitting next to Cross where Cross is laying at the range. Tech’s feet are tucked under Tech’s legs, one of his knees pressing into Cross’s ribs and the other pressing into his hip.
Cross hasn’t been shooting well, and it takes him a long time, too long and too many shots, for him to admit that it’s not the gun, it’s him that’s having the problem.
He doesn’t want to look too closely at that revelation, but he can’t leave it alone now that he’s noticed. It feels like his skin is on fire where Tech’s knees are pressed against him, feels like he’s going to explode if Tech doesn’t make it stop.
Crosshair can’t remember the last time someone reached out to touch him in a manner that was intended to end with anything other than violence. He knows Tech won’t hurt him, but the wires that run from the nerves under his skin into his brain got crossed somewhere and all he can think of is pain and blood.
Except, hiding in the back part of his brain where all those feelings that he still tries to pretend he doesn’t have reside, there’s something quiet and sure. Not a feeling because he doesn’t like those, but something solid, something that carries weight.
“Tech,” he mutters. His vod’ika tilts his head to look at him.
“Will you.” Cross stops because he’s not sure what he’s asking for, all he knows is that he needs, wants something that he can’t define.
“Will I what?” Tech asks him. Crosshair shifts, practically whimpers when the movement causes Tech’s knees to press harder against his side. Tech makes a sound of understanding, and Cross feels the heat of Tech’s hand as it presses against his back.
It’s too much and not enough all at once. It makes Cross feel like there’s electricity dancing under his skin, and he makes some kind of noise before bolting up, leaving the rifle on the ground.
Tech hasn’t even had the chance to open his mouth and apologize for what are, ultimately, Crosshair’s shortcomings when Cross bolts out the door.
“Didn’t think anybody else ever climbed up here.” Cross looks up at Echo as Echo climbs onto the top of the Havoc Marauder. Cross doesn’t say anything, too raw and on edge from the simple act of Tech putting his hand on his back.
“I care about them,” Cross blurts out, started by the admission and the words, and the fact that it’s Echo he’s admitting it to. Echo tilts his head, mechanical hand that Tech built him twitching on his thigh. Echo drops his chin, nods sharply.
“I know,” Echo says. Cross takes a deep breath, tries to convince himself that the sky and the stars aren’t falling down, and that just jumping off the side of the Marauder isn’t the way to deal with this conversation.
But Echo doesn’t say anything else. It makes Cross nervous. The only two people he’s ever met who know how to shut up are himself and Hunter.
“How’d you get your name?” Cross eventually asks, because if he doesn’t say something, if he doesn’t shatter the rigid, oppressive silence he thinks he’ll explode.
“My brothers gave it to me. I used to repeat all the orders we were given back to them.”
“Do you miss them?” Echo sighs, and Cross immediately regrets the question when he sees the look that crosses Echo’s face.
“They’re all dead. My squad mates. So yes, I miss them.” Cross drops his chin.
“I’m sorry you miss them,” he says. He sees Echo glance at the stars, and keep his gaze settled there.
“For a long time, I was too. But I know they don’t have to fight anymore in a war that was designed to kill them. They don’t have to lay awake at night terrified of watching their brothers die again, over and over, every time they close their eyes. They don’t have to question if staying in the GAR is the good choice. Maybe not the right one if you listen to your sense of duty, but a good one? Sometimes I think the dead are the lucky ones.” Crosshair swallows, turns to look at his newest vod’ika.
“Maybe,” Cross admits. “But do you miss Rex? The 501st?” Cross asks. Echo doesn’t look down from the sky and the canopy of stars painted across it. Cross can hear, faintly on the wind, Hunter arguing with Tech and Wrecker over the best way to build a fire to roast the bantha burgers Tech managed to barter for in the little town twenty-seven klicks away.
“Yes,” Echo says. It’s a quiet admission, like in the wake of his last confession Echo’s not sure he’s allowed to feel anything else, to have anymore thoughts.
“So why did you come with us?” Cross asks. The younger clone sighs.
“Rex has lost so many brothers I…” and Cross is pretty sure he gets what Echo’s saying even though Echo can’t, or won’t, finish the sentence.
“You’re worried you’ll let him down for not being the person you were.” He sees Echo raise an eyebrow at the sky.
“You’re surprisingly emotionally aware for someone who likes to pretend that he isn’t,” Echo murmurs. Cross snorts.
“I have a reputation to upkeep,” Cross warns him. Echo scoffs.
“That of an asshole,” Echo says. Cross almost laughs.
“Yeah, maybe.” He sees Echo shake his head.
Crosshair can’t believe he’s doing this, half bent over to keep the rain off of the tiny thing that he’s got curled against his chest. But it had sounded so damn pathetic crying in that alleyway.
And now here he is, sneaking onto the Marauder, cradling a loth wolf puppy against his chest that probably got thrown out because it was the runt of the litter.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, Cross thinks as he quietly climbs into his sleeping pod, after all his brothers are essentially strays that he started calling family.
The puppy squirms and stretches, toes flexing as it yawns. Then it has the audacity to blink at Crosshair, and wag its tail. Just like that, Crosshair falls in love.
“Fuck,” Cross mutters.
“Is that a puppy?” Cross grunts as someone, Tech, shoves him closer to the wall in his sleeping alcove.
“No,” Cross tells him. Tech, as expected, doesn’t listen to him, reaching across him to rub the puppy’s ears. She wags her tail noisily against the wall of the sleeping alcove.
“Does she have a name?” Cross feels himself twitch, turning to look at Tech.
“Why would she have a name?” Cross asks, and Tech rolls his eyes.
“Sometimes you’re very dense,” Tech tells him, shuffling around so he can press his face into Cross’ back. Cross wants to tell him to get out, but he can feel that Tech is finally relaxing, finding comfort in his ori’vod and maybe Tech will finally get some sleep.
Cross knows that Tech doesn’t sleep, finds it too hard to calm down enough, or relax enough, to where he can sleep. Tech sleeping is a rare thing. It’s always pretty funny to watch Hunter take a cup of caff out of Tech’s hands as Tech tries to drink it. Cross always sneaks Tech another cup, because while Hunter is trying to be a good ori’vod to Tech, Cross knows that sometimes Tech can’t sleep and needs to simply keep going. Tech and Cross both know it’s not healthy, but sometimes the best way for Tech to sleep is to work himself until he passes out. Just like a hard reset, he always tells Cross.
Cross just rolls his eyes, and settles into having his vod’ika sleep with him and this damn puppy.
Cross doesn’t think he’s gotten something right until he stops just outside the Marauder’s cockpit, and listens to two of his brothers.
“She doesn’t have a name yet. I think Cross still thinks that we think that he’s not attached to her.” Cross recognizes Echo’s voice, and aside from their conversion on the top of the Marauder almost a month ago, Cross thinks that’s the most words he’s ever heard his newest vod’ika say in one go.
“I don’t think any Jedi will let us keep her,” Hunter warns.
“They don’t have to know,” Echo says.
“That’s true,” Hunter says. Cross hears the puppy yip with excitement, and he jumps back as something yellow goes flying past him. Moments later, the puppy appears chasing the yellow object. When she sees him, she tries to stop, her feet sliding across the floor as she spins to gain momentum in the other direction and launches herself back at him, jumping up to plant her paws on his knees. Her tail’s wagging hard enough that her entire body is shaking.
Cross reaches down, and scratches behind her ears. When she’s deemed that she’s greeted him enough, she takes off like a shot down the hallway after the yellow object which Cross is realizing is a ball.
“Her name’s Ghost,” he says, stepping into the cockpit where Echo and Hunter are sitting on the floor.
“Cute,” Hunter says. Cross shrugs, sinking down to sit next to them. His knee presses against Hunter’s, and Cross can see that Hunter doesn’t miss the significance of that.
“You know, there’s a theory out there that eighty percent of human language is nonverbal,” Echo tells him, head tilted in a way that reminds Cross of Tech and makes him think that they’re a lot more similar than anyone would expect.
“She’s pale and pretty quiet most of the time,” Cross says as she comes bounding into the cockpit, proudly holding the ball in her mouth. Based on the looks on his brother’s faces, Crosshair is pretty sure that Hunter was the one who got Ghost the ball.
“Where the hell did you hear that?” Cross asks. Echo rolls his eyes at his ori’vod.
“Tech gave me some articles to read.” Cross doesn’t miss the implication: Echo can’t sleep. Crosshair doesn’t blame him. “Read a good one about human communication,” Echo adds.
Cross notes that he doesn’t feel like exploding just because his knee is pressed against Hunter’s. It’s progress and damnit his two youngest brothers are smart. Echo’s been talking to him about all those human communication and body language articles that he’s been reading and Tech somehow ends up in Cross’s bed every night and Cross just sighs slowly.
“I know what you’re doing.” It’s not very nice Cross knows, that he’s cornering Echo and Tech while Tech’s working on Echo’s mechanical hand and neither of them can run away, but he’s also not sure if they want to have this conversation, but it’s been spinning around in Cross’s brain for over a week now and it’s the only damn thing that he can think about.
“Tech’s working on my hand, I think it’s pretty obvious what we’re doing, ori’vod,” Echo tells him. Cross folds his arms across his chest, raising an eyebrow at his younger brothers.
“I’m not talking about the hand, Echo.” Echo glances at Tech, who shrugs.
“Do you want us to stop?” Tech asks. Ghost, being the good girl she is, hasn’t moved from Cross’s side, turning her head up so she can press her face into his hip and stare at him.
“What are you trying to achieve?” Cross snaps. He sees Echo flinch. Tech flinches, too, but he’s been around Cross enough that he’s better at hiding it. Cross hates it.
“We uh. We know you want to let your brothers know that you care about them, so we wanted to try to help,” Tech admits. Echo won’t look at him, staring at where Tech’s hands are hovering over the mechanics of his arm. Cross shifts, glancing at the wall.
The worst part, Cross decides, is how much it scares him that they’re succeeding.
“I’m probably always going to be an asshole,” Cross tells them. Tech rolls his eyes.
“We’re well aware,” he says.
“But thank you. Anyway. For y’know. Trying.” Cross doesn’t think he’s been this inarticulate ever.
“We’re not trying to make you not an asshole. You’re right, that’s not ever going to change. We’re trying to help you learn that it’s ok to tell people you care, and that there’s more than just verbal ways to do that,” Echo adds. Cross nods, shifts on his feet before bolting into the empty chair at the table. Ghost trots over to Echo and shoves her head into his upper chest, a vigorous demand for ear scratches. Echo smiles at her, but complies with the demand for attention.
“Tech doing something cool to your arm?” Cross asks. Tech grins at him.
“Upgrading the software and the hard wiring to support it.”
“Sounds interesting. Does it hurt?” Cross asks. Echo shakes his head.
“Nah. Just feels really tingly.” Cross snorts, shaking his head at his vod’ikas. They might be onto something, Cross admits as he sees the gentle smile on Tech’s face and the relief on Echo’s. Maybe, around his brothers, he doesn’t have to pretend to be an asshole.
“Captain Rex!” Rex jerks, turning to greet the voice and sees Sergeant Hunter walking towards him, grinning. Rex notes, thankfully, that the sniper isn’t anywhere in sight.
Then, Rex notices the white loth wolf slinking along next to Hunter.
“The hell is that?” Anakin asks. Hunter grins at him.
“Ever heard of a loth wolf, General?”
“I know what it is, I wanna know why you have it,” Anakin asks. Hunter just grins wider.
“This is Ghost. She’s good for the emotional health of the clones, sir. It’s all about productivity. Plus,” Hunter turns to look at Rex as he speaks, “Echo really seems to like her.” Rex hides a flinch at his brother’s name, but just barely.
“How’s he doing?” Rex asks. Hunter grins.
“Great. Listen, I gotta leave soon, but I wanted to drop this off.” Rex accepts the small package, wrapped in dirty brown paper. “We’re taking care of him. And if we don’t have his six, Ghost does. Don’t worry brother, we’ve got your vod’ika. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to him on our watch,” Hunter tells Rex. Hunter claps the captain on the shoulder, before nodding at Anakin.
“General, Captain. We’ll be seeing you around hopefully,” Hunter says. Rex nods.
“Hopefully, Sergeant,” Anakin tells him. Rex doesn’t say anything as Hunter turns and leaves, the wolf apparently called Ghost gliding along behind him like a shadow. Rex slowly opens the paper, and can’t decide if what he finds inside makes him want to laugh, or cry.
In the picture Echo, Tech, and Crosshair are sitting at a table. Echo’s on the left side and Tech is sitting across from him, working on the mechanical hand that Echo apparently has now. Tech’s smiling at something, wide and happy, as he works.
Crosshair is also grinning, which is a miracle in and of itself Rex thinks, and Cross is looking at Echo and the mass of fur on his lap. It’s clearly Ghost, but when she was much younger. Now, Rex is pretty sure she wouldn’t even fit in Wrecker’s lap. One of Ghost’s legs is in the air, smashed into Echo’s face. Echo, who’s laughing. It makes something in Rex’s chest hurt, and he’s not sure if it’s a good hurt or a bad hurt.
Clearly, Echo’s happy. He’s found brothers to look after him, help him, brothers who clearly care about him. He’s in the right place, Rex thinks. He’s found family whereas if he had come with Rex, as much as Rex and the 501st love and miss him, all he would have found with them are dusty memories tinged with a grief that won’t ever leave, and graves of his brothers, and expectations no one really would have expected Echo to meet.
“Rex?” He hears Anakin ask. Rex’s eyes snap up from the picture, and he clears his throat.
“Yes General?” He asks.
“They taking care of your little brother, or do we need to stage a jailbreak?” Anakin asks him. Rex shakes his head.
“No jailbreak, sir.” Anaking nods, claps Rex’s shoulder pauldron.
“Good.” And that, Rex decides, is all they need to discuss on the matter.
That is, until a few days later Rex gets a com from Anakin asking if the 501st would like a loth wolf of their own. Rex laughs, and replies a gleeful yes.